It is not yet known whether early-life physical activity reduces the risk of developing breast cancer. Subgroup analyses according to menopausal status and body mass may help clarify this association. Data from a population-based case-control study of female residents of Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire were used to examine associations between body mass and breast cancer risk. Cases (n = 4614) were identified by each state's tumor registry; controls (n = 5817) were randomly selected from population lists. Frequency of participation in strenuous physical activity when 14-22 years of age, weight at age 18 and 5 years before interview, height, and other factors were ascertained through structured telephone interviews. Adjusted odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were computed using logistic regression. Reductions in postmenopausal breast cancer risk associated with strenuous physical activity were greatest for women in the fourth quartile of body mass index at age 18; the OR for women with the highest activity frequency on average (> or =once/day) was 0.45 (95% CI = 0.26-0.79). Associations with frequency of activity also varied by weight change. Compared to women with no activity and little adult weight gain, frequent physical activity was associated with reduced postmenopausal breast cancer risk in women who had lost weight since age 18 (OR = 0.19, 95% CI = 0.05-0.70) or had gained little or modest amounts of weight (weight gain: first tertile, OR = 0.36, 95% CI = 0.05-0.85; second tertile, OR = 0.31, 95% CI = 0.14-0.66). Weighted MET score analyses yielded similar but less inverse results. These findings suggest that the reduced risk of postmenopausal breast cancer associated with frequent, early-life physical activity may be greatest in women who, over the adult years, either lost weight or gained only modest amounts.